Tools for Couples Happiness — 03 September 2006
Successful relationships beat the odds

Most people are troubled by the high rate of divorce in the U.S. and astonished that from all the excited and loving pairs getting married fewer than half remain together. People ponder about the causes for such a high failure rate. Actually, it is more surprising that half the couples overcome the hurdles and succeed in preserving their life-long relationship.

The first barrier to togetherness is the differences in the partners’ innate personalities. No two people are alike and whatever isn’t like us is “weird” “different” “confusing” and hard to understand. That which we don’t understand we fear. What appears to be illogical conduct is threatening and worth avoiding. People feel secure with what is familiar and predictable. Since the motivation for every behavior is in part propelled by one’s nature, only time and awareness clarifies the ever-evolving understanding. It requires loving patience and acceptance of the uniqueness of the mate.

In addition to each person’s personality, childhood experiences further complicate one’s reactions. Even those raised by healthy parents often experience painful emotions in growing up. Encounters with siblings, parents, teachers, peers, coaches and others often alter the child’s beliefs, attitudes and even nature. The connection between present events and painful childhood memories is an internal process not available to the partner. Thus any inconsistencies between the partner’s basic nature and his/her reactions may become uncomfortably puzzling to the mate.

How skillful one is in interpersonal interactions is another major factor in the success of one’s relationship. Regrettably, this essential skill that facilitates connection with others is never taught in school or in any other formal setting. Children are advised to ”get along with each other”, not fight and solve their problems (so it won’t inconvenience the adults), but are not given rules and tools for conflict resolution, respectful interactions or communication skills. It is no wonder then that many adults who wish to get along with each other are still ill equipped to know how to actualize this goal. Often their original family’s healthy relating role models were less than ideal and left the young adult lacking for skills.

For many couples all the above is further entangled with gender differences that also play a role in misunderstanding between them. This information is also not part of any curriculum. Few adults undertake to study these differences to facilitate their mutual understanding, compassion and love. They tend to mock rather than appreciate their personal, family and gender differences.

If all these elements do not complicate relationships enough, many couples also have to struggle with issues of: personal esteem, fears, doubts and insecurities, cultural, religious or regional differences, peer and family influences, myths about love and commitment and societal expectations. These and other influences gravely compromise the chances for a successful life-long couple relationship.

Yet, almost 50% of couples do stay together and find their path to intimacy. What is it that they do that eludes others? Here are a few beliefs and behaviors successful couples practice.

• They date for at least two years to accumulate information about the nature of their future mate and his/her reactions in times of comfort and in stress.
• They ask themselves whether the future life-partner’s style, nature and habits are manageable, even when they are least pleasing.
• They accept the other person’s nature, ways and family history with compassion and reject the notion that this person is “fixable”.
• They honor their new relationship as their primary commitment and deal with the extended family, work and other commitments in a united way.
• They view the other person as their equal and permit themselves to accept the other’s influence.
• They graduate from being in love to loving the other, which is a conscious choice and a relationship guiding principle.
• As per Dr. John Gottman’s findings: they abstain from criticism, defensiveness, contempt and withdrawal. They do so by complaining without blaming, taking responsibility for their part of a problem, creating a culture of appreciation and staying present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.
• They learn and use effective communication and conflict resolution tools.
• They talk daily, laugh, play, appreciate the small gestures of kindness and keep the courtship alive.
• They seek professional help when they need it and never entertain divorce as an option.
• They accept that it is up to them to create the relationship they want. So they keep practicing, learning and growing together as they continue to improve their love and intimacy.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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